What Indolent Means in a Medical Diagnosis

During an exam, your healthcare provider may use the word "indolent" to describe your diagnosis. What does that mean? Essentially, it indicates that the disease is progressing slowly and does not pose an immediate threat.

Yet, just because a medical condition is indolent, doesn't mean it should not be treated. There are times when treating it at this stage is a better approach. As a step in understanding your diagnosis, let's look at indolent diseases in further detail.

A doctor and a patient in a hospital ward.

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What Is Indolent?

The word indolent has two related meanings:

  1. In one sense, indolent means lazy, lethargic, or idle, being averse to activity or movement.
  2. When applied to a medical situation, indolent can mean a problem that causes no pain, or is slow-growing and not immediately problematic.

"Indolent" comes from the Latin word indolens, which means insensitive to pain. The root dolere means to grieve or cause distress.

Synonyms: Morbid processes, low-grade diseases, silent killer diseases,

Your healthcare provider may tell you that a tumor is indolent. That means that it will grow slowly, and you have some time to make decisions about how you will treat it. Likewise, an ulcer may be considered indolent, meaning it is present, but not causing pain.This does not mean that these conditions won't eventually cause pain or develop into advanced stages of the disease. They may ultimately lead to full-blown disease or even to death. But often with indolent tumors, you will die with it rather than from it.

Silent Dangers

The vague symptoms that an indolent condition may present can easily be ignored. It may even become something that you simply get used to living with and don't think to report to your healthcare provider. However, when a disease is indolent, it has the potential to be a silent killer disease.

If it has no symptoms for a long period, you may not seek medical care or go for regular check-ups and screening examinations. People who avoid medical care due to cost, embarrassment, or lack of time may not have diseases diagnosed while they are still in an indolent stage.

The real issue is that the disease may be treatable and curable during the indolent stage. By the time it displays symptoms or pain, it may have a low success rate for treatment and may even result in death.

Examples and Processes

Indolent tumors, malignancies, and slow-growing cancers, such as are often seen in prostate cancer, may only be detected by screening tests rather than symptoms. If it is diagnosed as an indolent tumor, the healthcare provider may recommend a watch-and-wait course and not provide treatment unless it shows signs of growing or spreading.

Indolent ulcers are slow-healing wounds. On the skin, they have hard elevated edges but the base isn't granulated.

Indolent corneal ulcers are seen in dogs, often after the eye gets scratched. Usually, such a scratch would heal in days, but if an indolent ulcer develops it can last for months. Unlike the usual definition of indolent, they are bothersome. These are sometimes called Boxer ulcers as they occur frequently in that dog breed.

Indolent lymphoma is also called low-grade lymphoma. Some types of lymphoma are less aggressive and do not grow or spread rapidly. Chronic lymphocytic lymphoma, follicular small cleaved cell lymphoma, and the lowest three grades of non-Hodgkin lymphoma may be classed as indolent lymphoma.

Leprosy is an indolent infectious disease. It grows very slowly and only produces effects over the course of many years.

Indolent carditis is a form of infective endocarditis. It produces few symptoms and doesn't spread to other locations of the body. It may be associated with acute rheumatic fever.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does indolent mean?

    Indolent is defined as lazy, lethargic, or idle and being averse to activity and movement. In a medical sense, indolent is used to describe issues that are progressing or growing slowly, do not cause pain, or do not pose an immediate threat.

  • In medical terms, is indolent a good or bad sign?

    It depends on the situation. An indolent tumor is slow-growing, which is generally a good sign. For example, an indolent prostate tumor is typically treated with a wait-and-see approach.

    An indolent wound, on the other hand, is a slow-healing wound. In the case of an indolent wound, more aggressive treatment may be required.

  • What is an indolent stomach ulcer?

    An indolent ulcer is a stomach ulcer that does not presently cause pain or other symptoms.

  • What is indolent lymphoma?

    Indolent lymphoma is a term used to describe less aggressive forms in lymphoma. Also known as low-grade lymphoma, indolent forms of the disease include chronic lymphocytic lymphoma, follicular small cleaved cell lymphoma, and the lowest three grades of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merriam-Webster. Indolent.

  2. Baroni LV, Solano-Paez P, Nobre L, et al. Indolent course of brainstem tumors with K27M-H3.3 mutationPediatr Blood Cancer. 2020;67(3):e28102. doi:10.1002/pbc.28102

  3. Bangma CH, Roemeling S, Schröder FH. Overdiagnosis and overtreatment of early detected prostate cancerWorld J Urol. 2007;25(1):3-9. doi:10.1007/s00345-007-0145-z

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.